Occasionally I have the pleasure of being arrested by some earnest phrase in a work of science that takes a part of the world and sets it moving. This happened when I read, for instance, a sober reflection in a book of evolutionary biology on the fortunes of the earliest cells: “Fusion results in an immediate increase in size. An increase in size surely acts as a buffer against a wide variety of size-related sources of mortality.” Also this statement, from a biogeography textbook: “Areas of endemism in Central America correspond very closely for birds, reptiles, and amphibians, but much less so when butterflies are involved.” These are gleeful moments for me: they reorient parts of the world—some place where an investigator might pronounce the cause of death to be the victim’s size; or some affair in which “butterflies are involved.” Before these encounters, the ideas perturbed by them had been fixed to the firmament under which I daily walk about: they were undifferentiated portions of the mundane totality of facts, which for the most part I ignore, assuming out of habit that this is not where the action is—not the loose hem where the world is still in the midst of changing. But then an idea, a mere word, quivers in some unexpected recombination, and I am reminded that, contrary to a certain humanistic prejudice, a fact is a living thing. Though pinned in some fashion—hustled into a word, pressed into a gridded curve—a fact remains in motion. To think, with panicked humanists past and present, that science fixes the world in place and deadens the imagination is to come to a rash conclusion both about facts and about death. Even fossils, after all, are “not done with their changes.”
This rashness comes of a rather aged indignation, traceable to at least one respectable source. It was Keats, himself a formidable metamorphysician, who mixed lament with insult and set the tenor of the resistance against the sterility of natural philosophy:
… Do not all charms fly
At the mere touch of cold philosophy?
There was an awful rainbow once in heaven:
We know her woof, her texture; she is given
In the dull catalogue of common things.
We can certainly choose, by these lines, to cleave the world in two—two visions, two kinds of explanation, two kinds of imaginative life. We can read Keats’s poem as a definitive statement that natural philosophy is essentially and irrevocably the antithesis of poetry—that it has nothing poetic about it. I choose not to: I cannot accept a categorical denunciation of the duller rainbow, for such a reading would constrain science and poetry alike. To read this way would be to meet the world in the same cataloguing spirit that Keats despised. It is against the spirit of poetry to be so choosy: for poetry to determine in advance the province of dullness amounts to a poetic dogmatism as unbecoming as the purported scientific one.
But we have fortified our acceptance of scientific dullness in another way. That objectionable coldness of touch, said Weber, becomes great capability: unfettered by myth, heedless of grace, the scientific intellect may truly come to master the world’s rattling contents. The secular catalogue is eminently useful precisely for being dull, and if we lose by it a rather beautiful but antiquated enchantment, such is our wizened lot. We shall have things, not gods.
Take this, then, as a different defense of things: a defense of complex hydraulics, and hard carbon, and of the “businesslike atom”; of musculature, secretions, surgical scalpels; of our “apish cousins”; the unicorn of the sea; and that “albino giraffe,” the sycamore tree; of the “capillaries of the delta” and the “waves of chlorophyll in motion.” Take this as a reminder of all poets who have read that dull catalogue with feeling, and felt no antipathy toward the science of those objects, nor toward scientific labor, but instead perceived in that endeavor a companion effort to put the world into words.
The grace of things is that they should bear names; over this Hopkins spent his life in rapture. Auden met him at that altar, but the fellow pilgrim he chose to recognize there was Keats. Lecturing at Oxford in 1956, Auden described the existence of a certain cast of things that had a particular bearing on his life as a poet. He called these things Sacred Objects and Sacred Beings, and explained the way they invited the poetic imagination into a particular communion.
The impression made upon the imagination by any sacred being is of an overwhelming but undefinable importance—an unchangeable quality, an Identity, as Keats said: I-am-that-I-am is what every sacred being seems to say.
There is a sense, in these encounters, that the imagination is held captive by sacredness: it does not so much create as receive. Yet despite the distant echo of God’s own speech, the encounter between the sacred and the imagination is not exactly enlightening. It is not a moment of clarity for the poet, nor of resolution. Rather, it is the opposite: the beginning of a mystery, the discovery of an unidentified nerve in the world, alive with meaning, as compelling as it is vague. “A sacred being cannot be anticipated,” said Auden, “it must be encountered. On encounter the imagination has no option but to respond.” Its response “is a passion of awe.”
The things that struck the boy Auden in this way mostly had to do with lead mining. He was obsessed with the burial of ore and the precise means of extraction; with the necessary design of machinery; with, in fact, the whole north of England—where the mining districts were—and the particular names of the underground veins open there for mining. He read more technical literature than storybooks, and hardly any poetry besides the Psalms and the hymnal. But: “Looking back,” he said, “I now realize that I had read the technological prose of my favorite books in a peculiar way. A word like pyrites, for example, was for me not simply an indicative sign; it was the Proper Name of a Sacred Being.”
“Proper names,” Auden wrote in A Certain World, “are poetry in the raw.” The commonplace book he published in 1970, A Certain World is an autobiography with the central figure removed, or never constituted; it marks the path of an undeclared walker. We guess the spirit by its stopping-places. A lengthy section follows the heading “Proper Names” and the first entry is a solemn observation of Thoreau’s: “With knowledge of the name comes a distincter recognition and knowledge of the thing.” Why this should be—why the name of something should bestow depth and clarity to the thing itself—returns to the central enigma of this story of poetic grace. The propriety of a given name comes from the name’s being of the thing— in the words of Coleridge, such a name “always partakes of the Reality which it renders intelligible.” For Coleridge the highest language consisted of “symbols consubstantial with truths.” Words could be, as they once were, “living powers”—not the mere husks of things, not sepulchres of thought and feeling. They are vessels, to be sure, but they too are in motion, and they are part of what they convey, like Ezekiel’s “living chariot.” Auden put it this way:
Language is prosaic to the degree that it does not matter what particular word is associated with an idea, provided the association once made is permanent. Language is poetic to the degree that it does matter.
What is striking, too, about poetic sacredness is how little the identity of the poet has to do with it. Auden’s autobiography is a constellation around an invisible axis. That “unchangeable attribute” that Keats so admired, which is none other than the quality of being a self, is absent in the poet. What distinguishes the poet from every other being, animate and inanimate alike, is exactly what makes him so very hard to distinguish. The poet, writes Keats, “has no character”— is, in fact, “the most unpoetical of any thing in existence.” But he “lives in gusto, be it foul or fair,” for he is a “camelion” who takes on the character of all other things. This is his “negative capability,” the ability to inhabit other entities to perfection, with no possibility of any residue of himself, for he is no positive quantity at all. “Continually … filling some other body,” he sees with eyes not his own and speaks always through others.
If Auden’s poet is a figure struck still by its encounters, Keats’s poet is an undiscriminating breath of air passing through the world, an obedient Ariel. Both are more severe forms of self-effacement than the scientist’s. In an encounter with a Sacred Object, the imagination has no choice but to let the object speak. It takes a self-stilled, self-negating poet to recognize this native speech, and the poem that follows is misunderstood if it is taken as a song of the poet’s self—it is really a song of all other selves. Thus Hopkins listened to what “each tucked string tells,” how “each hung bell’s / Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name”—
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves—goes its self; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying What I do is me: for that I came.
With the name come the self-declaring actions—the catching fire, the drawing flame—the whole being dealing itself out. The poet is not expressing himself; he is approximating as best he can the echo of the object. “Dapple-dáwn-drawn Falcon, in his riding / of the rolling level underneath him steady air”: that echoing name hovers too, as a being that is brighter than the day bursts from its surroundings—out of the prosaic sky, out of the unpoetic condition of being unperceived. It is the poet’s perceiving that sets the thing free, reveals it wheeling, lets it have its say: “AND the fire that breaks from thee then…!” Such, then, is the objectivity of poets.
Poetry and science aid each other in the work of perceiving, in setting things in motion. Both are in attendance at the stirring of objects into sacredness—into communion with the imagination—and they do not, I think, simply attend the same phenomenon in contrary spirits. The words by which science comes to know things have manners and movements intrinsic to them as poetic names do. Even a scientific understanding of constitutive processes or parts—the dreaded woof and texture of things—can lend an object a more pronounced identity, more ways to “deal out being.” Is it disenchanting to discover what the summit of Mount Everest is made of? Auden, presumably, would have been happy to learn of any new rock, but what awe would have seized him to find one there that he already knew—marine limestone, its name conveying it all the way from the sea?
Do we ever obliterate a thing by defining it? Only when it is a bad definition. With a name a thing comes to life—a premise so basic to poetry that it cannot be from poets that the charge of intellectual anesthetization comes. When we say that the earth moves in plates, and the air moves in cells, in what way are we disassembling the world, rather than continuing the work of perceiving? When we call the air sucked from a mountaintop by gravity “katabatic winds”? I have heard the stegosaurus’s plates described as “radiators,” for they are filled with blood vessels and angled to face the sun—a lizard-heater. “Glacial dust” is the parched leavings of a retreating glacier—not to be confused with “marine snow,” the speck-sized remainders of animals falling, slowly but inexorably, to the bottom of the ocean, bound, if they are not picked away, for the residents of the “hadal communities.” And it is not only underwater dust that falls: D’Arcy Thompson described the life of the tiny creatures called diatoms and foraminifera as a single drawn-out fall through the ocean, of “exceeding slowness.”
“How the needle of nature delighteth to work, even in low and doubtful vegetations,” wrote one who walked leisurely along the curves of sentences, Sir Thomas Browne. Science makes objects out of such lowly things, scopes poised and taking names. If science fixes the things of this world, it is only to see more scrupulously their finer changes. Just one man may serve to illustrate: Darwin, bent over his potted earthworms, sifting and weighing their small excretions, and perceiving geologic change in those tremblings of dust, the loamy layer growing, the earth loosening, millimeter by millimeter.